It’s a common enough scene: Officers on-site, responding to allegations of a crime; the public milling about, curious and uncertain. An officer approaches, poses direct questions: What did you see? Where did they go? Can you give us a description of the suspect?
A civilian, nervous, fumbles for an answer. The officer grows impatient, the demands for information more adamant. There’s tension in the air. Under a peppering of questions, the civilian clams up, and the interview is over.
It’s a common scenario, but also an avoidable one. To help officers recognize the effect of their own body language and better understand the nonverbal cues of the people they are talking to, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has developed a new training curriculum that focuses on fundamental interpersonal communication.
Earlier this week, the program was awarded an annual innovation award by the 2017 International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) conference, which met in Nashville.
“The Spokane Sheriff’s programs were exceptionally well done – that’s why they got the award,” said Peggy Schaefer, director of IADLEST national certification program. “The Spokane Sheriff was the first to submit three courses for national certification. We’ve never seen anyone submit so many.”
Sheriff Office’s curriculum development specialist Tony Anderman developed the training programs with input from researchers at Washington State University. Schaefer said most law enforcement training programs are developed by civilian contractors.
“The Spokane Sheriff’s Office is also the first to submit training programs for certification that are developed by a law enforcement agency,” Schaefer said. “It’s very different to see training programs coming straight from local law enforcement.”
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Anderman said it had become clear that some recruits lacked interpersonal communication skills and sensitivity.
“Society has changed. People don’t talk to each other anymore,” Knezovich said. “And this is not just about young people. Older people aren’t much better.”
Anderman said that officers were also unaware of their own body language, and did not have the skills to interpret body language and physiological changes in people they interact with.
An officer’s direct approach – coupled with the authority conveyed by a uniform – may set a nervous person on edge, making them less likely to converse or less capable of supplying useful information. Demanding answers, assuming an aggressive posture or betraying impatience through tone or body language can all make a potentially important source clam up, Anderman said.
That, in turn, can make officers more impatient, leading to a breakdown in communication between officer and civilian almost before any words are said.
Instead, officers should try to empathize with civilians, and recognize that their uniform already sets them in a position of power, Anderman said. A friendlier tone or calming word can do a lot to broach that barrier.
“What can go wrong is that we fail to recognize that we are spinning someone up,” Knezovich said. “If you can’t recognize what’s going on with the person you are talking to, you fail to recognize what can happen.”
And that may lead to both officers and civilians getting hurt.
The ‘Clear Sight’ program helps officers understand their implicit bias and how it impacts their decision making.
The ‘Interaction and Perceptions’ program seeks to provide a deeper understanding of how an officer’s bias may affect how he or she approaches a civilian for an interview.
Anderman will take course participants to a public location, like the mall, and have them go up to strangers and ask a simple question, both in and out of uniform.
He found that civilians respond quicker to a person in uniform, but don’t go into as much detail as they would with someone who’s not in uniform.
“The officers also act differently in uniform. They are more confident and serious looking,” Tucker said. “So it took more work for them to engage people.”
Cultural and language differences can add another level of difficulty in communication.
Sgt. Marty Tucker, who oversees the Sheriff’s Office Training Unit, said officers who are stressed, lack proper rest or just came off an intense call may have a difficult time recognizing how they come across.
“And they have to make very complicated decisions while monitoring what’s going on around them so they can stay safe,” Tucker said.
The main goal of the new communication training is to help officers get better at de-escalating a volatile situation.
Anderman said law enforcement spends millions on training, and that there is a tendency to add more hours to academy training instead of looking at quality.
“I see this organization over the next five years taking training in a different direction,” Anderman said. “We already have great instructors. This is about redesigning training.”
Knezovich, who’s been sheriff for 11 years, said he made training a priority from his very first day in office.
The training unit is now located in a former elementary school in Otis Orchards, but it started in a small office. It’s moved many times and has been located both at Spokane Falls Community College and the old University City Mall in Spokane Valley.
Knezovich is working on one more move: he’d like to relocate the training unit to the Spokane County Raceway where law enforcement conducts it’s driving training. Knezovich said he’s hoping to partner with the Air Force and local tribes to make that happen.
“Then we’d have a real regional training center,” Knezovich said.
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